In Jewish tradition, it was the custom at their most sacred feast day to have one of the older children who attended to ask this question: “What makes this day more special than any other day?” And so I want to ask you, “What makes this day more special than any other feast day we have in the life of our church?”
Is it because we have beautiful flowers? Or is it because everyone is dressed up in their new Easter clothes? There really is something more important than the candy in your Easter baskets or the Easter egg hunt that is to follow after this service. There was something so very special that happened that first Easter morning that the Church has remembered and celebrated this day as the most important day of all time. And what is so fascinating about this day is that it was a total surprise to those who first experienced it.
And the surprise of Easter comes to each of us in different ways, just as it did for each of the disciples as our Gospel today so clearly describes. Mary Magdalene when she first came to the tomb only saw that it was empty. Peter looked inside saw something more intriguing. “He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen.” (v.7). The details described here was plainly the effect of thought, care, and composure; and clearly showed, that the body was not taken away in a hurry, or by thieves, since everything lay in such order and decency; which evidently was done, either by our Lord himself, or by the angels.
The vivid details of this picture impress us with the fact that we are in the presence of an eye-witness. Fiction and legend writers don’t add details that don’t have any particular meaning such as the description of Peter and John who “…started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.” (v.3-4). The character traits depicted for both of them remind us of all that we know from other sources. The bold impetuosity of St. Peter, and the gentle reverence of St. John, are represented in him who quickly entered into the sepulcher, and in him who stood gazing into it, and afterwards went in, and “…he saw, and believed” (v.8b). The empty tomb means that Jesus is alive. What Jesus predicted happened just as he said.
Each one of us pick up on the clues of the resurrection in different ways, which reminds me of a story about a young boy named Philip.
Philip never felt like he belonged. He was pleasant enough but he looked a bit different and sometimes seemed unusual to his eight-year-old classmates.
In his Sunday school class several weeks before Easter, Phillip’s teacher introduced a special project. He gave every member an empty plastic egg. He explained that each child was to go outside, find a symbol for new life and put it into the egg. Enthusiastically, the class responded.
Back in the classroom the eggs were opened one at a time with each child explaining the meaning of his symbol.
In the first egg was a pretty flower; in the next a beautiful butterfly, while green grass was in a third. As each egg was opened the children “oohed” and “aahed”. In another was a rock, which prompted loud laughter. Finally the last egg was opened – there was nothing.
“That’s stupid,” said one child. Another grumbled, ”Someone didn’t do it right!
The teacher felt a tug on his shirt. It was Phillip, who said, “That’s mine, and I did do right! It’s empty, cause the tomb was empty.”
There was an unusual, thoughtful silence. Philip did get it right after all. The revelation that the tomb was empty and that Jesus is risen, doesn’t come easily to any of us. It didn’t come easily to me as a young adult. I thought Christianity was just a vague hope or superstition. But I wondered what it could all mean. And there were clues that made me wonder, such as how would the early Church apostles give up their lives as martyrs, if they made this all up? There must be more to the gospel story but I just hadn’t seen it. And at eighteen years of age, I prayed to God that if it was true, that he would open my eyes to see it and know it. And I made a commitment that if he did show it to me, that I would follow it. God answered my prayer, which I won’t go into now, but the rest is history.
This revelation didn’t come easily to Mary Magdalene either. As we look at the details of Mary’s journey, we see her distress and feel with her the tears. And just like many of us who hear His words, but do not comprehend their meaning, we miss the possibility that it just might be true that the One for whom we are seeking, is the one standing right in front of us. And yet, when we hear His voice, when we are able to hear Him calling our names, it is then that we realize the truth of His word; it is then that we can lay hold to the promised joy that this day represents.
Jesus gently asked Mary, “Woman, why are you weeping?” You know he deeply cared about how she felt, so much so that he even asks her again after she turns to face him, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”(v.13-15). Then he calls her by name, “Mary.” Jesus gently and lovingly calls her by name, in a way that made the good news real and personal.
As we read this story we too need to be reminded to make an effort day in and day out, to pay attention and take heed to his voice. And if any need encouragement in this endeavor, remember the words of the old hymn In the Garden:
“He speaks, and the sound of His Voice,
Is so sweet, the birds hush their singing.
And the melody that He gives to me,
Within my heart is ringing.
And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own.
And the joy we share, as we tarry there,
None other, has ever known.”
So let this day be one that is filled with the sound of Jesus’ voice. Let our Savior’s voice speak through the words of scripture. Let our Savior’s voice sing through the notes of the music. Let our Savior’s voice call to you gently and increase your joy with the knowledge that all things have been accomplished and we are saved by Jesus’ sacrifice and are able to trust in the reality of the resurrection. Let your weariness, confusion, and doubt fall away, for we are an Easter people, a forgiven people, a people loved beyond measure; but we are also people who still must live in a world that is full of temptation and is fraught with peril. Yet we live as a people with a vision that goes beyond this world, And what the Lord has done on this day makes a big difference.
Remember Philip, who I mentioned earlier in my sermon. Well as the changes and chances of life unfolded, Phillip continued to struggle with many physical problems. That summer he picked up an infection which most children would easily have shaken off. But Philip’s weak body couldn’t and a few weeks later, he died.
At his funeral nine eight year-olds with their teacher brought their symbol of remembrance and placed it near his coffin. Their unusual gift of love to Phillip wasn’t flowers. It was an empty egg – now a symbol to them of new life and hope.
It was Phillip, the ‘different’ child, who had helped his friends see the wonderful hope in the message of Easter.
It was Mary Magdalene, who was also quite different in her background and experience, who also leaves quite an impression on us as she goes to tell others of what she had seen and heard. You might remember that it was Mary Magdalene who was described as having seven demons cast out of her. Mary is also called Magdalene or ‘of Magdala,’ to distinguish her from others bearing the same name. Magdala was a little town near Tiberias and a resort city on the western shore of Galilee which was a place of great luxury, and great corruption, and tremendous immorality. Therefore there is an early and strong tradition that believes that Mary Magdalene was a renown sinner, and may have been the one who washed Jesus feet with her tears, and wiped his feet with her hair (See Luke 7:36-50) All we know for sure is that Mary Magdalene was a very broken person who Jesus had put back together. “The one who is forgiven much, loves much.” Therefore she loved him more than anybody else, and that is why she is still there at the empty tomb when everyone else had gone. And what she experienced that day not only changed her life but the whole course of Christian history.
Our Gospel leaves us today with Mary going to the empty tomb and he left that day “…amazed at what had happened,” And she went to the other disciples with the message, “I have seen the Lord.” Hopefully we too, will leave here today with the same message: Alleluia. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia.
Index of other background material
The story of Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus on Easter Morning tells us three things about our Easter Faith: (1) Faith rests in truth, (2) comes by grace, and (3) works through love.
Rests in truth. All through the gospels Jesus keeps saying that he will be rejected, despised and killed and on the third day rise from the dead. Wouldn’t you think that if you heard this over and over again that when the third day arrived, they would be expecting an empty tomb? But it does not occur to Mary or to any of the disciples?
If these stories were not eye-witness accounts, but invented, never in a million years in a deeply patriarchal culture would you have made the first eye-witness to the resurrection a woman. The only possible reason that Marg Magdalene would be the first eye witness is if she actually was. There is no other possible reason or motivation for her to be there.